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  • Writer's pictureMargaret Gerety

Those death certificates will go like hot cakes.

My husband’s colleague recently lost his father and was responsible for managing his estate. He told my husband he was shocked that neither the funeral home nor the internet gave a clear answer to his question: “How many death certificates do I need?” The answer is a lot. Many more than you think. My recommendation is to order at least 20!

I remember forcing my parents to get cell phones back when my mother was very sick, so they could reach each other when my father was out. When she died, my dad told me to cancel the contract (baby boomers didn't have cell phones back then). I remember sitting at my little entry-level job cubicle, hissing at the poor customer service rep who took my call. Yes, they needed a death certificate to cancel the contract. No, the obituary I faxed wasn’t sufficient. Yes, I would be charged until they received it. It was a bruising experience for such a stupid thing like canceling cell phones my parents never used.

When my father died, the list of to-dos exploded. Here are some of the things my siblings and I triaged together: I hounded the energy company to repay us for a big overcharge my father found a year before he died; my sister spent hours in a windowless room at a bank while an appraiser inventoried old coins and jewelry from safe deposit boxes; we sorted through mountains of old and incoming mail; I set up roof work and septic tank pumping; my sister safety trashed old prescription pain killers; my brother spent a cold winter's night in our empty family home making sure the pipes didn't burst; I transferred the title of my dad's 10-year-old Toyota to our former housekeeper's husband. (In case you're wondering, most of these required a death certificate.)

These experiences represent the underbelly of a family’s post-death experience.

People don't really talk about the post-death checklist. I mean, it’s really really boring, soul-sucking stuff. It’s ridiculous that you have to use any of your already diminished, emotional reserves on these tasks so close after the death of someone you love. You often don't want to spend any more energy talking about it. The post-death checklist is a constant reminder that your loved one is gone and it’s your job to scrub their name from every magazine subscription, service agreement, and credit card they ever signed up for (and they'll be charged, posthumously, until you cancel them.)

For people going through this post-death checklist right now:

  • You have my sympathy. And you’ll certainly have the sympathy of friends who’ve been through this before. So call up a friend who has lost someone in the last few years. Even if they can’t give you practical advice, you can vent and they can empathize. You'll both feel better.

  • If you didn’t get the memo already, order lots and lots of death certificates, as soon as possible.

home-made and published checklists I used
  • Use a checklist. Whether you make your own or use someone else's, a checklist will keep you on track and lighten your mental load. See my post on Lantern's online pre- and post-death checklists. Ask your estate lawyer or friends & family if they have any they recommend.

  • Ask for help! There are people out there you can outsource the work to, like move managers and estate administrators. If you don’t want to pay anyone,ask a friend. Some really do mean it when they ask "how can I help?” so don’t be afraid to take them up on the offer. If they re-neg, maybe get some better friends.

  • Don't be so hard on yourself. This process is not going to be perfect (you probably haven't done it before!). It will likely be more expensive than you thought, and you will make a mistake or twenty along the way. Give yourself a break. Remind yourself that just doing these tasks means someone else doesn't have to. You're a f***ing saint.

  • Take your time, but keep at it. Don’t let the process drag on forever. If you feel overwhelmed, set a goal of tackling a few items each week, and ask your spouse or friend to be your accountability partner. Remember, most estates take at least a year to close, and the non-legal stuff can take even longer. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

For folks who want to get organized for themselves or a sick loved one, take a moment and pat yourself on the back. It's a true public service you are undertaking. 

The best thing you can do is simplify your life and make sure the right people have the information they need. Here are some suggestions:

  • Organize. Make sure you know what you own, what you owe, what you are entitled to, and where the related documents can be found. If you haven’t already, make a (secure!) list of all of the accounts (don't forget your social media accounts), subscriptions, memberships, contracts, deeds, benefits, insurance, etc. you have and safely store account numbers, passwords, and contact information somewhere at least one person knows it can be found.

  • Simplify. Go through everything and see what you can cull. Cancel those subscriptions and memberships you don’t ever use. Mark the ones that you know you won’t use when you’re older or sick so a loved one can help you cancel them at that time. 

  • Consider inter vivos (lifetime) gifts and other transfers. Whether it’s a piece of art, that motorcycle you don’t drive anymore, or even your house, consider aggressive steps like transferring ownership of these assets before you die. If you are brave enough to do this, talk to an estate lawyer so you don't make any big mistakes (especially the tax kind). For example, it’s sometimes better to wait until you die so your loved one gets the “stepped-up basis” in older, appreciated assets (see what I mean when I say talk to a lawyer?).

At the end of the day, there is no getting around post-death to-dos. Even the most organized person can't tie up their own estate before they die. I wish I could re-calibrate the imbalance between the physical and emotional effort these tasks take (a ton) and the sense of accomplishment you feel when they're completed (none). But with any luck, and with a lot of focus and help, it can go a bit more smoothly. 

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